Department of Modern Languages

The University of Mississippi

2009 The 49th Christopher Longest Lecture

John McWhorter

John McWhorter
October 2, 2009

John McWhorter, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, columnist/blogger for The New Republic and former associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, discussed “The Power of Babel – And Why We Can’t Fight It in Our Language.”

Nationally renowned linguist, scholar,author and columnist John McWhorter delivered the 49th annual Christopher Longest Lecture Friday (Oct. 2) at the University of Mississippi. McWhorter, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and adjunct professor of linguistics at Columbia University, speaks at 4 p.m. in Bondurant Hall auditorium. His free, public presentation was titled “The Power of Babel – And Why We Can’t Fight It in Our Language.” An hour long reception preceded the lecture.

McWhorter helped his audience better understand the concept of prescriptivism – or criticism of deviation from the arbitrary standard merely because it is deviation – of the English language, which is the main theme of his book “The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language.” He said he would enjoy “seeing light bulbs go off in at least a few people’s heads as to a new conception, under which language is not something most people use ‘wrong.’” “For several decades, linguists have tried to convince the general public that it is illogical to suppose that people go about making ‘mistakes’ in their speech, yet the argument never seems to go through,” McWhorter said. “In this talk I want to see if a new approach to the argument can actually change some minds.”

Donald Dyer, chair and professor of modern languages, said McWhorter’s upcoming presentation was among the most interesting
lectures the department has featured because of the topic and lecturer. “I think it is important to hear somebody of McWhorter’s standing speak about such controversial issues,” Dyer said. “It’s one thing for a university professor to talk about prescriptivism in the classroom, but it’s quite another thing for someone who is a well-known specialist in the field and the author of many books to speak publicly,and of course intelligently, about the topic. McWhorter holds a doctorate in linguistics from Stanford University. He taught at Cornell University and the University of California, Berkeley.

Specializing in language change and language contact, he has authored a collection of books, including “Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music in America and Why We Should, Like, Care” and “The Word on the Street,” which focuses on dialects and Black English. He has written three books on Creole languages and was selected to deliver a 36-lecture audiovisual course called “The Story of Human Language,” in 2004. His academic linguistics book, “Language Interrupted: Signs of Non-Native Acquisition in Standard Language Grammars,” was released in 2007, and last year, his books “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: Untold Stories in the History of English” and “All About the Beat: Why Hip Hop Can’t Save Black America” were
published.

McWhorter was a weekly columnist for the New York Sun from 2006 to 2008. He has written on racial and cultural issues for publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The National Review, The Los Angeles Times, The American Enterprise, Ebony, Vibe, New York Magazine, City Journal and The New Republic.